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Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Croft, a damage controlman, welds an armor plate onto the turret of an Army vehicle at Camp Buehring, Kuwait, where 15 sailors are using their Navy skills to help protect troops on missions in Iraq.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Croft, a damage controlman, welds an armor plate onto the turret of an Army vehicle at Camp Buehring, Kuwait, where 15 sailors are using their Navy skills to help protect troops on missions in Iraq. (Courtesy of U.S. Navy)

On first hearing it, the concept may sound too ironic to be true: a team of sailors assigned to duty in the middle of the desert, spending their days working on Army vehicles.

Uh huh. And the Air Force’s best pilots have been signed up for submarine duty.

But for 15 crew members from the Navy sub tender and maintenance vessel USS Emory S. Land, who are currently working at Camp Buehring in northern Kuwait, the idea is as real as the sand in their conspicuously blue coveralls.

Since late January, the team of metal workers and hull technicians has been working 24 hours a day in three shifts to weld armor plating onto its newly adopted fleet, the hodgepodge of vehicles used by the Army to support Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The program is a first for the Land, and came about late last year when the Army put out a call for more welders to up-armor its convoy vehicles. The request was forwarded to the Navy.

Because the Land, based in La Maddalena, Sardinia, was relatively close by and its welders were scheduled to have some free time on a mainly humanitarian mission last month, the ship was a logical place to find the needed help, said the ship’s repair officer, Cmdr. Brian McGinnis.

“The mission of [Fleet Maintenance Activity] is to fix things. The Army had vehicles that needed to be fixed. It’s only natural that the closest asset to where the work is [needed] go and perform the job,” McGinnis said in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes.

With that green light, the 15 volunteers from the Land quickly became fish out of water in a soldier’s world, where, “we stick out like a sore thumb,” in their Navy uniforms, said Lt. j.g. Christopher O’Leary, who was deployed with the welders.

“It has prompted people to ask us questions like … ‘Who’d you piss off to get sent here?’” he said.

Reached by e-mail last week, O’Leary responded to a list of Stars and Stripes questions posed to the Land welders about the life of a desert-dwelling sailor.

For the most part, the transition to life off the ship has been pretty easy, O’Leary said, thanks in part to the busy schedule and a take on their surroundings that makes the place seem a little more like home.

“We don’t call it the desert, we call it the bottom of the ocean, which is currently all dried up,” he said.

The work of cutting metal and bonding plates together is familiar to the crew members, he said, and after some tutelage from members of the 276th Maintenance Company, which is also working at the camp, the welders took to the job, “like we had been doing it all along,” O’Leary said.

The hardest part has been learning Army lingo and the names of all the new vehicles they’re armoring, he said.

“I thought the Navy had a lot of acronyms,” he said.

As strange as the setting is for the sailors, getting sent to faraway locations to fix vehicles — from surface ships to submarines, and now Army Humvees — is the fleet maintenance crew’s bread and butter, McGinnis said.

“For us, this is just another fly-away to go fix something. Only this time, it’s not a vessel tied up to a pier, it is a vehicle parked in the middle of the desert,” he said.

O’Leary said the sailors see the mission in a similar way, and consider it “an awesome opportunity,” though an unexpected one.

“Never in a million dreams did we think we would be on dry land fixing Army vehicles,” he said.

But even with desert sand under their feet, working in Kuwait gives the sailors the same sense of accomplishment they feel while working on the Emory S. Land, O’Leary said.

“The mission is unique only because it is a different location than we are used to,” he said. “We know that what we are doing will save soldiers. No different than the work we do on ships and submarines. Those repairs also save sailors.”


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